All words Ginnee Thomas — All photos: Blinkofanaye
The spare Wikipedia page for Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou contains precious few nuggets of insight. The Orchestre is from Benin, a small country on Gulf of Guinea, they have been active since the 1960’s, they play a funky blend of West African genres, and they have over 500 songs to their name. On this information and one YouTube alone, I made my way to the Hamilton on Tuesday night to see them live.
The Orchestre, clad in their gospel whites, were electric from the moment they played the first note. Every move they made – from the way they shook their shakers to their improvised dance moves with each other and the crowd – carried with it an obvious joy for making music and doing what they do. West African Pop can be tough to describe, but it typically combines a clean rhythmic guitar, chanted vocals, a bouncing bass line, frequent horn solos and more percussion than you can shake a gourd rattle at.* Pun intended. As the name suggests, the Orchestre incorporates may polyrhythmic elements. The drummer often switched time signatures in the middle of a song, catching many a unprepared dancer wrong-footed. Long story short, at any given point, there is a lot going on onstage, both visually and aurally. This feeling was further compounded by the fact that no member of the Orchestre ever seemed content to just hang out. An obvious rule of Orchestre Club is that if you’re not playing an instrument, you’re shaking something, and if you’re not shaking something, you’re wiggling your ass vigorously.
As a casual fan, I couldn’t distinguish between their material – which parts were old or new or improvised. I can, however, tell you that they played with a consummate professionalism. After 500 songs in the bank and ceaseless touring, these gentlemen nailed every note, every tricky rhythmic switch, every chant in lockstep stride. And even more impressively, they made it look fun. Every member of the band seemed to be over sixty years old, and they handled their craft with such infectious and childlike glee that it reaffirmed my faith in the basic goodness of people. Multiple members made trips to into the dance floor to dance with friends.
The other star of the evening was the venue. Having never been to the Hamilton, I was impressed with the format – a combination of restaurant and concert space – the sound, and the vibe. Most audience members watched the first portion of the act sitting down, enjoying appetizers or dinner, before making their way to the dance floor as the band caught fire. It struck me as an excellent place to enjoy a date or hang out with friends.
* That simple description doesn’t really capture the feel of the music; if you want a slightly better taste, check out the African section at Pates Tapes, and for a more psychedelic take, the excellent Soundway collection of 70’s Nigerian guitar pop.